Recently, you became a bar mitzvah. Yes, I know, you will celebrate your bar mitzvah in a few weeks in front of the congregation on Shabbat morning. But yesterday was your 13th birthday on the Hebrew calendar. So technically, you are now officially a Jewish adult. To mark the occasion, we went to shul this morning and you had your first aliyah to the Torah. You also put on tallit and tefillin for the first time. I am not sure if you could see my face behind the camera I was holding. I was beaming with pride.
You chose your tallit on our trip to Israel. It looked great. Yes, I know it was falling off your shoulders because it’s a few sizes too big. But you’ll grow into it. Wear it in good health. The tefillin you wore are the tefillin you made with your own hands. I know they feel uncomfortable (you don’t have to wind so tight that your fingers turn purple!). But with a little practice, you’ll figure it out. You’ll figure out the logistics of how to wear them. At the same time, I hope you also come to understand why we wear them. I write to you now to share my own understanding.
As you know, I didn’t wear tefillin on the Monday morning of my bar mitzvah. In fact, I didn’t get my first pair of tefillin until I was in my 20s. You, on the other hand, are poised to have a unique relationship with this mitzvah. That’s because you were born on the day after Passover. What?! What does strapping strange black boxes on our arms and heads have anything to do with Passover, you ask?
This past March when Beth El hosted Kesher Tefillin, we learned the answer. Artist-educator, Rabbi Noah Greenberg from Sfat, Israel, led you and more than 30 classmates in a deep and detailed study of the mitzvah of tefillin. For a week, you painted and folded, rolled and sewed leather to make your own set of kosher tefillin. This was more than an arts-and-crafts project. Along the way, you were introduced to the symbolism and meaning of this ritual object.
While inserting parchment scrolls into the tefillin shel rosh (head-tefillin), we learned that tefillin are mentioned four times in the Torah. The first two times are in relation to the Exodus story: “this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead… that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt.” (Exodus 13:9).
Tefillin are a reminder of God’s outstretched hand that redeemed the Israelites. But to me the message is not just about God’s power. It is about our responsibility. In binding God’s words to our arm, we pledge to follow God’s example: to raise up those who have fallen, to embrace those who are hurting, to free those who are captive. Our hands are God’s hands. We must stretch them forth to strengthen our communities and bring healing to our world.
In tefillin, the leather whips that once beat and enslaved our people, are transformed into symbols of our liberation. Freed from the shackles of Egypt, we are no longer slaves to Pharaoh but servants of God. That is why traditionally this is one of the first mitzvot performed upon becoming bar mitzvah. That is why Passover is not a once-a-year holiday. Every day that we lay tefillin and every day that we reach out to those in need, we embody the spirit of the Passover. No, that doesn’t mean you have to eat the last popover still in our freezer. You can enjoy pizza bagels for lunch.
Thirteen years ago, just hours after we packed up our pesadick dishes in the basement, you entered the world. Yes, that means you get to have a “real” birthday cake. But it also means that you can appreciate the notion that Passover is not just or even primarily about the past. It is about the future. Now, as you take your place among the minyan, I hope that eventually you come to love and live your tefillin. In that case, I’ll continue beaming, but you will be the light unto our world.
With all my love,
Rabbi Alexander Davis is the senior rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minn.